Money Matters Lesson 2: Credit Cards vs. Debit Cards

[College kids are notorious for being poor. And why shouldn’t we be? We take out student loans to pay for private universities, can barely balance a part-time job with our full-time courseload, and the only “balance” we’re familiar with refers to the number of points left on our dining hall cards. Oh, did I mention many of us tend to splurge every extra penny on PBR’s at the campus bar?
If you disagree with everything I just said, you probably don’t need this column. But if you’re nodding along because you’re officially an adult and still don’t know how to manage your money, then you might want to pay attention every week, because I’m going to (try to) get you through this, and make you a successful saver and a wise spender.]
Everytime you whip out the plastic at the grocery store, liquor store, or gas station, the cashier asks automatically, “Credit or Debit?” It’s a simple enough question, though to many, it may be redundant. I mean, who cares what type of card it is as long as it buys you a pack of smokes, a 30-pack, or a week’s worth of Ramen Noodles?
There are a lot of pros and cons to using both credit cards and debit cards, and many people adamantly side with one form of plastic or another, much like people adamantly side with either Obama or McCain. Personally, I’m a debit kind of girl. My brother, on the other hand, swears by credit. What gives?
A debit card is like your plastic checkbook. You might not need cash in your hand, but you need to have the funds in your bank account to make a purchase. A credit card, however, lets you splurge now and pay later– even in small monthly increments. In this case, the credit card may SEEM like it has its advantages, because you can pay for your spring break trip now, and spend the next three months waiting tables to pay for it.
But beware: the reason I personally prefer to use my debit card is because it prevents me from racking up thousands of dollars in CC charges, since it doesn’t feel like I’m spending MY money. For me, I’d rather balance my checking account daily, and say, “Ok, that’s $20 here and $40 there,” and always know what I have left. A credit card bill, to me, is like a tacky Christmas gift from your wacky aunt; you never think it’s going to be THAT bad, but when the big day rolls around… gag. I always think I’m on top of the world with a few hundred dollars locked away in the bank… then I get a 2K credit card bill, and it’s like I’ve been robbed at the end of each billing cycle.
Another thing to be wary of when using your credit card is the interest rate. Sure, there’s no hurry to pay off the last five bar tabs you’ve racked up on credit… but the longer you wait, the more you’re spending on nothing at all. The appeal of many credit cards is gimmicks like “No Interest for Six Months,” which is fine and dandy for six months… and then suddenly, you’re paying off the minimum balance each month and see the current balance rise nonetheless.
On the other hand, debit cards can smack you with hidden fees as well. Debit cards come in handy when you need cash- via ATMs or cash-back with purchase, but you’re bound to be paying a fee on your purchases, or on your withdrawals from foreign ATMs. You know how you have to accept the $2.00 charge when using a foreign ATM? These days, a lot of banks charge an additional service charge for using another bank’s withdrawal services. LAME.
Another thing I do hate about debit cards is that sometimes it can take a few days for your purchases to go through to your account. That means that if you went shopping yesterday, and check your account today, you might think you have more money than you do. Bars and restaurants can sometimes cause trouble because it takes longer for the tip to go through than the food/beverage purchase. This is rather inconvenient, and unless you balance your debit card account like you do your checkbook, it can be easy to overdraw or bounce a check if you aren’t aware of the charges that have yet to go through. Which brings me to another flaw of the debit card system…
If you overdraw or bounce a check, you will pay very, very dearly. I don’t balance my purchases like a checkbook, but I do check my balance every day. So, when my balance seemed to stay the same for a few days, I figured all of my purchases had gone through (I’d gotten pretty wasted the week before and didn’t know how much I spent at the bar, so I had to wait for the bad news). I went on spending again, and the day before my direct deposit went through, I discovered that not only had I overdrawn, but that I was being fined nearly $20 for EACH individual purchase that was over my limit. WTF? If you’re above your limit with a credit card it gets declined, but I guess banks just want to trick you into thinking you’ve got the funds if your card is approved, so that they can collect on your own irresponsible stupidity.
Now that I’ve given you the lecture on responsibility, let’s get to the perks. The reason we all want a credit card: the bonus points! Just about every major corporation has its own credit card these days, and for every dollar you spend, you get some sort of reward (Starbucks cards, 10% off at Target, airline miles, etc.). Some banks have recently started rewarding their clients with cashback points on debit purchases, too, but this is a relatively low-paying perk, at least in the realm of Poor Studentsville. My debit purchases are never as outlandish as my credit purchases, so I’ve only been getting petty change rewards so far.
If you think you can handle a credit card, and not run your financial reputation into the ground, maybe a credit card’s for you. However, if you like to only spend what you’ve got, stick with debit. It’s still a good idea to have both forms of plastic, but I don’t recommend filling every slot in your wallet with a different credit card. That’s just asking for trouble, especially when you’re on a budget, like many of us are.
If you want to find the perfect credit card, and really weigh all of the perks that come along with plastic, check out CreditCards.com. You can search and cross-reference a plethora of cards, until you find one that will reward you well. Happy spending, kids!

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